The case for a referendum on Lords reform

If the politicians really can't decide, the public should.

Is it any wonder that the public tire of politics, when politicians spend an inordinate amount of time squabbling over an issue they all fundamentally agree about?

All three main parties put reform of the Lords in their manifestos, we can argue about the details, but the principle of a need for change was clear. Today, a cross-party group of parliamentarians has published a report that recommends some sensible and appropriate changes to the way the upper house is constituted. At which point professional politicians all over the shop will throw toys out of their pram left, right and centre, and create a Westminster firestorm over a policy that just 6 per cent of the public think should be a priority. Why don’t they just sort it?

It does seem to me that the arguments against reform fly in the face of democracy. The main theme this week is ’electing representatives to the upper house gives them a democratic legitimacy that the current Lords do not have, threatening the primacy of The House of Commons’. Is that really an argument for not reforming the current system – that the lack of an elected mandate for the Lords, making them a less effective opposition to the Commons, is a good thing? Previously the main argument was ‘if we don’t appoint good people to the Lords, then we’ll lose the best talent’. Again – isn’t it up to the people to decide who the best talent is? Otherwise, you end up in a similar situation to Greece or Italy with a political elite foisted on them in dubious democratic circumstances.

But that’s just me (and the Lib Dems). I understand there are others with different views. So I think the public should probably decide,  if the politicians really can’t. After all, anyone who voted Lib Dem, Labour or Tory voted for it at the last general election.

Which is why, unlike many in my party, I’m not particularly against the idea of a referendum on this issue. I well understand the arguments against one – all three parties advocated reform in their manifesto, the mandate for change already exists. I also understand the whispered fear in the Lib Dems – having been burned by the AV referendum last year (and having seen the rather nasty but highly effective campaign against reform by our coalition, ahem, partners), why put ourselves through that mill again? And the "fast and loose with the truth" nature of that last campaign seems to be starting already.

But my answer would be – trust the people. There is a mandate for change. There is a majority for change. We are talking about a major constitutional reform, the only time perhaps a referendum is justified in a parliamentary democracy. And frankly, as a Liberal Democrat, I find it hard to argue against giving people the final say.

I, for one, would be happy to get out there and make the case for change.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference.

Queen Elizabeth II speaks during her address to the House of Lords, during the State Opening of Parliament in Westminster. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.